How Ann Arbor's "Right to Renew" ordinance works – and what's next for Washtenaw tenant rights

The city of Ann Arbor passed a “Right to Renew” ordinance in October of last year, stating that landlords may not deny renters lease renewals without just cause.
The city of Ann Arbor passed a "Right to Renew" ordinance in October of last year, stating that landlords may not deny renters lease renewals without just cause. Landlords who fail to do so must pay up to two times the tenant's current rent to help them relocate. The ordinance was a major win for tenants' rights in Ann Arbor, which boasts an average apartment rent of $1,912 per month according to national apartment search website RentCafe.

The ordinance first appeared on Ann Arbor City Council agendas in the summer of 2021 as an amendment to the city's Early Leasing Ordinance, according to Ann Arbor Renters Commission Staff Liaison Kristen Vander Lugt. The Early Leasing Ordinance prevents landlords from showing prospective tenants property or entering into new lease agreements until 150 days before the end of the current lease term.
FHC Executive Director Pam Kisch.
The issue of landlords denying tenants lease renewals without just cause is unfortunately not new, and not illegal. Pam Kisch, executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Fair Housing Center of Southeast and Mid Michigan (FHC), assists individuals who have experienced or are currently experiencing any form of housing discrimination – which sometimes can involve a lease renewal being denied without just cause.

"We know that landlords may want to evict for an illegal or discriminatory reason, but waiting until the end of the lease makes it harder for us to investigate," she explains. "There are certainly landlords who punish residents, and that will be more difficult now."

Prior to the Right to Renew ordinance, landlords in Ann Arbor were able to deny a lease renewal for any cause, and weren’t required to disclose that cause. Kisch gives an example of one such situation in which the FHC might get involved.
Apartments for rent in Ann Arbor.
"Say a person with a disability asks for permission to have an emotional support animal, and the landlord says no. The FHC would say, 'This person has the right for this animal, and if you don’t allow them then we may take further legal action,'" she says. "The landlord thinks, 'I have to [allow the tenant to have the animal] but I didn’t want to, and I can get payback by not renewing their lease,' which sends a message to that tenant or to any other tenant."

Kisch says the message the landlord sends is that if tenants ask for any sort of accommodation, they run the risk of losing their home. With Right to Renew in place, landlords are required to provide a reason or proof as to why a tenant may not continue their lease, which in turn provides a safety net to those renters.

Vander Lugt says the establishment of the Ann Arbor Renters Commission "likely played a role in City Council’s approval of Right to Renew" after multiple city residents complained about lease renewal issues. The commission, which was founded in September of 2021, represents all renters in the Ann Arbor area, focusing on underserved populations including low-income individuals and families, those with criminal records, and those who have previously experienced homelessness. The commission works directly with City Council in order to raise awareness on issues regarding the process of renting homes in the city.
Ann Arbor Renters Commission Staff Liaison Kristen Vander Lugt.
City Council Member Travis Radina acts as a liaison between the commission and the rest of the council members. He says the passing of Right to Renew was "an effort to help alleviate the stress and insecurity felt by many renters" who were being pressured to vacate their rentals for landlords to show the space to prospective new renters and draw up new leases.

"As with all new ordinances, I will continue to evaluate their effectiveness – and listen to the advice of the Renters Commission, renters city-wide, and housing providers to determine if additional reforms are necessary," Radina says. "I’m incredibly grateful to finally have [the Renters Commission's] voice represented more formally in our city government."

Radina also describes a possible future action that the Renters Commission has identified based on community complaints about “often non-refundable and costly wait-list fees being utilized by some landlords.” Some landlords have also circumvented the Early Leasing Ordinance by forcing tenants to sign new leases early or risk having their home placed back on the rental market.
Ann Arbor City Council Member Travis Radina.
Other organizations focused on tenants' rights have also started working on ensuring the safety and rights of Washtenaw County renters. One of them is the Ypsilanti Tenants Union, which seeks to "fight for housing justice through education and organizing and win victories that change our housing conditions and lives for the better." The group declined an interview at this time.

With the Right to Renew ordinance still in its infancy, its impact is still being analyzed by the Ann Arbor Renters Commission as well as City Council. 

"While it’s clear that the Renters Commission’s intention with Right to Renew was to support renters, changes to the renting and leasing process in Ann Arbor remain uncertain until more time passes," Vander Lugt says.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.